I’ve never seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy but due to the way the news industry is structured, I can’t help but hear about the gay slur spoken by actor Isaiah Washington. I mean, you know, I couldn’t tell you how many people have been victims of the genocide in Darfur based on the coverage by ABC, CBS, NBC, or CNN, but I can tell you exactly what gay slur Washington said. It is getting, of course, a ridiculous amount of coverage by the networks who are treating it like it’s real news or something. Even worse is the outcry. I just heard that thousands of people have signed on online petition calling for Washington to be fired and Disney may justify firing Washington because of some ridiculous law against offensive slurs in the workplace. I say ridiculous for two reasons. One, because if the NBA or NFL had such a law in place where any player could be fired for making offensive statements during work, there wouldn’t be enough players to field one team, let alone a league. And two, what the hell happened to the First Amendment?
This case isn’t like Mel Gibson and his “Jews are responsible for all the wars of the world” outburst. For one thing, Washington has actually apologized for making the statement, whereas Gibson mere apologized for being so drunk he couldn’t control his truth mechanism. This case is much more akin to the Michael Richards’ outburst which I felt was ridiculously overplayed as well.
Why? For a few reasons. The most basic reason is that we’re talking about Isaiah Washington here, not Mel Gibson. Let’s face it, Isaiah Gibson isn’t John Travolta or Denzel Washington, he’s Daniel J. Travanti. The fact that most of you have no idea what that means is my proof. It may be hard to believe, but during the early 80s Daniel J. Travanti was one of the biggest sex symbol/actors on television. In fact, rather than comparing him to Denzel who was a supporting character on a cult show, better to compare him to George Clooney. Both actors are sex symbols on a huge hit show based in a hospital. Well, guess what. Isaiah Washington ain’t going to wind up with Clooney’s career. In twenty-five years he’ll have people scratching their heads at the mention of his name just like many of you scratched your head at the mention of Daniel J. Travanti. My point is that all this hullabaloo about a minor, soon-to-be-forgotten TV actor-and I’m not being cruel when I say that, I’m merely looking at statistical probability, as I said I’ve never seen the show and as far as I know I’ve never seen Washington act-is a total waste of time.
Just like the Michael Richards. We’ll never know for sure if Richards is really a racist or was just pushed too far by admittedly obnoxious African-American hecklers. I’m not excusing Richards’ outburst by any means, don’t get me wrong, but the plain fact is that his outburst was, in fact, sparked by obnoxious behavior. I don’t know enough about the Isaiah Washington case to speak, but perhaps the same thing applies. Regardless, neither of these are akin to Mel Gibson from out of nowhere revealing what many had already suspected was a not particularly deeply buried anti-Semitic strain in the man. And here’s another difference. Michael Richards is already a has-been who came this close to being a never-was in the first place. If it hadn’t been for Seinfeld, Richards would be just another cast member of Fridays who never went anywhere and whose biggest claim to fame was being there the night Andy Kaufman went ballistic on live TV. (Or did he?) The cases of Isaiah Washington and Michael Richards are different from Mel Gibson because Gibson has been a major Hollywood player for decades and may well be for decades to come. By contrast, Washington and Richards are relative nobodies.
But even that isn’t really what makes this a non-issue. What is really at stake here is the freedom to say what you want about somebody on the job as long as it isn’t slander. From what I understand, Isaiah Washington referred to a gay man as a faggot. Umm, excuse me, but isn’t that the truth? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the object of Washington’s ire has been called a faggot before by another gay man. Faggot is a strange word like nigger; it’s only bad depending on who is saying it. As far as Richards, clearly he should have just walked away and let the jerks who were provoking him face the wrath of an audience that just paid to watch Michael Richards walk offstage. He didn’t, of course, and that was his big mistake. But I think the -ism that Richards was really guilty of was stupidism, and not racism. I honestly believe that if the guys who had been heckling him that night had been wearing a Trace Adkins shirt, a NASCAR cap, and were chewing tobacco the words out of his mouth wouldn’t have been racial epithets, but rather equally extreme putdowns of southern hicks.
When did we reach the point where people must be publicly castigated and humiliated and even face seeing their careers end because they happen to say a word we don’t like? There’s no question both Washington and Richards are stupid and ignorant and unable to control their anger, but we aren’t talking about two men powerful enough to make major blockbusters that enhance their hate-filled ideology. We should fear Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst because he directed it not toward specific individuals but against an entire religion. And he has the power to make movies that inculcate that hatred in a generation of gullible people. Some would argue he already has. I don’t mean to suggest that either Washington or Richards get a free ride-though apparently that is exactly what Gibson has gotten. What I do mean to suggest is that these specific and localized outbursts not be turned into referendums on their very core beliefs. We need to look at things like this in context. Whatever you may personally think of the statements made by Isaiah Washington and Michael Richards-and I happen to find them sickening-the fact is that if you or I said the same things we might be disciplined, we might possibly be required to take some sort of sensitivity training, but there’s no way we would be facing the possibilities of such things as internet petitions or having our careers come to a dead end. (Well, I don’t know. I can see some where some AC producers might be tempted to lodge an internet petition to get me banned from this site.) Let’s always keep in mind that the First Amendment gives us the right to express any opinion, regardless of how much we disagree with it, as long as it doesn’t verge into slanderous or libelous territory. And if you happen to disagree with an actor’s opinion, simply turn the channel or don’t buy his DVDs or don’t go to his movies. Even Mel Gibson is deserving of that respect.
Which isn’t to say he still shouldn’t burn in hell with his good buddy, Hitler.